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Get the latest on democracy related events in Taiwan and overseas.
Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.
As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.
More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.
Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.
On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.
On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.
According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.
During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)
Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.
Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.
(Top photo: Match.net.tw)
Titled “Strengthening Youth Participation in Democracies Worldwide,” the three-day workshop is one of the first CoD events to focus specifically on youth and their role in democracy.
Nearly 40 speakers and participants, from countries as varied as Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Morocco, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S., are taking part in this year’s workshop. Among the participants from Taiwan are Lin Fei-fan, Wei Yang, Poyu Tseng and Jennifer Lu.
Among the topics discussed at the panels are “Security and Democracy: Extremism, Cultural Bigotry and the threats to Democracy,” “Unbalanced Globalization: Impact on Democracy,” “Effective Youth Participation – The balance between social movements and political participation,” “Global Youth Solidarity for Democracy,” and “Establishment of a Youth Pillar.”
According to the workshop manual, only 1.65% of parliamentarians around the world are under the age of 30 and less than 12% are under the age of 40, while the global average age of parliamentarians is 53.
“Despite the age eligibility for national parliaments starting at 25 in more than a third of countries around the world,” it says, “citizens under the age of 35 are rarely found in political leadership positions — political institutions, parties, parliaments, election bodies and public administration.”
As a result, it continues, “It should come as no surprise that, with limited opportunities for inclusive participation in decision-making processes, youth feel excluded and marginalized in their democracies.”
Since meaningful democracies require the participation of youth, the 2017 CoD Youth Forum “aims to develop proposals to the question how can youths be more engaged and included in democracies.”
In his opening remarks on April 19, TFD President Dr. Hsu Szu-chien expressed his hopes that the Youth Forum, held as Taiwan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its democratization, would set a precedent for future youth empowerment, an area of democracy promotion that has not received as much attention as others over the years.
More than ever, with the rise of populism, the lure of extremist movements, trends suggesting an erosion of democratic traditions worldwide and authoritarian regimes like those in China proposing would-be alternatives to a liberal-democratic world order, young people need to be empowered and to be better informed about the ramifications of non-democratic systems of governance, Hsu said.
While dialogue can provide the platform for countries to help each other to democratize, he said, it is also essential to help counter democratic reversals such as have occurred in recent years.
“TFD wants to be part of that effort,” he said. “It’s a fight.”
In his keynote speech, Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, struck a more positive note.
Despite the many challenges and reversals observed worldwide — exemplified, among other things, by U.S. President Trump’s congratulatory remarks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the passing of a referendum on Sunday that will fundamentally alter the Turkish constitution in ways that have human rights watchers deeply worried — we should remember that during the Cold War almost everybody growing up in the shadow of Soviet authoritarianism believed that the Soviet Union was eternal.
Decades later, and with the Soviet empire relegated to the history books, the Arab Spring proved once again that authoritarian regimes with the most powerful intelligence services and the savviest diplomats — countries like Mubarak’s Egypt — could be brought down by the people.
Turning to democracy, Eörsi said the term didn’t mean much unless it provided a platform for dialogue and the means to resolve the dilemma between human rights and the choices of the majority. That dialogue, he added, necessitates a parliament, a free press that can scrutinize the mechanisms of power, and a civil society. Without those, democracy as self-reflection cannot occur. And without self-reflection, there can be no room to change, or to improve, the system.
Eörsi described the Community of Democracies as a “democratic United Nations.”
“There is much talk about democracy at the UN, but little tangible is done,” he said. “Part of the reason is because nearly half of UN member states are not democratic.”
Headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, the Community of Democracy was founded in 2000 under the Warsaw Declaration, a ground-breaking document signed by 106 countries in support of democratic transition and consolidation worldwide. TFD is an International Steering Committee member of the Civil Society Pillar of the Community of Democracies.
The CoD 2017 Youth Forum runs from April 19-22.
The disappearance and detention of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese rights activist and staff member at Wenshan Community College in Taipei, by Chinese authorities last month could have a chilling effect on the willingness of Taiwan-based human rights workers and NGOs to put their personal safety at risk by operating in China.
Lee, who formerly worked for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was seized upon entering Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province, via Macau, on March 19. Lee reportedly travelled to China four or five times a year and often discussed human rights and democracy on social media with contacts in China. According to initial reports, on this particular trip he was heading for Guangzhou to secure medical treatment for this mother in law. It wasn’t until 10 days later that the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed that Lee had been detained for “activities that endangered national security.” The TAO, however, did not give specifics as to the nature of Lee’s “illegal” activities, nor did it provide clarification on where he was being detained. So far it also has not permitted “humanitarian visits,” as stipulated in Article 12 of the Cross-strait Joint Crime Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.
Lee’s predicament could be the first clear instance of China’s latest regulations on foreign-funded NGOs (which include those based in Taiwan) and new National Security Act, implemented in 2015, targeting a Taiwanese national. The vague definitions of threats to national security stipulated in the Act, along with Beijing’s position that the provisions also apply to Taiwan, ostensibly account for Lee’s detention. Whether the Act or the new regulations on foreign-funded NGOs was used to detain him remains to be determined, as does the nature of his purported infraction(s), which could range from the promotion of democracy through contacts in China to Taiwan “separatism.”
His detention also coincides with a chilling of relations between Taipei and Beijing following the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in January 2016. However, Beijing’s refusal to allow Feng Chongyi, a China-born associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and Australian permanent resident, for almost a week in late March suggests that the enforcement of new National Security Act and/or foreign NGO regulations — not tensions in cross-Strait relations — may have been the principal cause of the decision by China’s security apparatus to detain Lee.
Lee’s detention may also have been in retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest in early March of Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese university student in Taipei, for espionage. Another possibility, advanced by individuals who are in regular contact with civil society in China, is that factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have led security forces to capture Lee (and, possibly, to detain Feng, who was also submitted to long interrogations at his hotel in Guangzhou) in order to “embarrass” President Xi Jinping ahead of the important CCP congress later this year. The timing of Feng’s brief detention, coming during a state visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, reinforces the view that internal politics — the jockeying between the Xi and Jiang Zemin factions — may have been a factor. Lastly, it has also been suggested that Lee’s detention may be part of efforts by a segment of the Chinese security apparatus, dissatisfied with Xi’s failure to take a harder line on Taiwan, to cause a controversy in cross-Strait relations. By presenting him with a fait accompli (Lee’s arrest for “endangering” national security), President Xi’s enemies have made it difficult for the Chinese leader to order Lee’s release lest he be accused of being soft on national security.
After sustained global media coverage and an open letter signed by several dozen academics, Feng was eventually allowed to depart for Australia on April 1; as a condition for his release, he was made to sign a statement agreeing that he would not give details of his questioning or where it took place.
Unlike Feng, Lee’s case has received much less international attention, notwithstanding press conferences at the weekend by various NGOs, including one by former Sunflower Movement leaders Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting and Huang Kuo-chang, in which Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong also participated. The lack of international pressure could conceivably make Lee’s release less likely.
Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, announced at a press conference late last week that she will go to China to secure her husband’s release but will not retain legal counsel there as doing so would give the appearance of “legitimizing” the regime and China’s unfair legal system. Various Taiwanese agencies said they were working behind the scenes to find out more about Lee’s whereabouts, the reasons for his detention, and to secure his release.
Lee’s case will undoubtedly exacerbate fears among Taiwan’s NGO community that their activities in China may also subject them to arbitrary arrest and detention. Despite China’s assurances that Taiwanese are protected by the law, the incident will likely have a chilling effect on interactions between Taiwanese and Chinese civil societies. The possible cooperation of Macau and Hong Kong authorities in the rendition of suspects to China proper also indicates that the special administrative enclaves may no longer be safe for individuals who are deemed “dangerous” by the Chinese government.
Taiwan has a long tradition of activism, one that continued — and in some ways intensified — after the end of the authoritarian era. Despite the high frequency of street protests in this vibrant democracy, civic agitation has rarely been violent, and with a few notable exceptions, when physical violence did occur tit was perpetrated by law enforcement agencies. Examples of this were seen during the , then the head of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), in November 2008, and at the on the night of March 23-24, 2014, during the Sunflower Movement. Otherwise, and in contrast with the use of force by police and security agencies in other democracies, the response by Taiwan’s law enforcement agencies to street protests in recent years has been largely permissive and rarely constituted abuse or violence, as some contemporaneous critics alleged.
The same can be said of activist civil society, which rarely went beyond the ritualistic “clashes” with police — pushing and shoving during which no one’s safety was put at risk and in which both sides suffered minor bruises at worst. With some notable exceptions and notwithstanding claims by the authorities, protesters defied the government peacefully albeit vocally, and often refused to abide by the Assembly and Parade Act, which restricted the public’s ability to protest spontaneously. In recent years, when non-state actors used violence during protests it tended to result from the involvement of criminal organizations, most of them linked to the pro-unification movement. Such incidents surrounded visits by senior Chinese officials during the phase of rapprochement under the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016), with groups of unidentified individuals ensuring “protection” for the Chinese delegations young and unarmed Taiwanese protesters from civic organizations opposing the visits. Pro-Beijing groups, such as the Concentric Patriot Association of the ROC (CPAROC, 中華愛國同心會), have also become notorious for Falun Gong practitioners in the plaza outside the Taipei 101 skyscraper.
Despite the incidents described above, even when street activism in contemporary Taiwan was at its apogee (2011-2015) protesting — and law enforcement’s response to protesting — was a largely peaceful activity and rarely descended into the kind of violence that typifies street protests in other Asian democracies.
There are, however, signs that violence may be becoming more intrinsic to protesting and at the instigation of elements purporting to be part of civil society. Thus, while society remains largely committed to peaceful and legal forms of activism, there is reason to believe that some sectors have been infiltrated by organizations that are prepared to use violence to achieve their political aims and/or to discredit Taiwan’s democratic institutions. Many, moreover, are using the “Sunflower precedent” as justification for holding rowdy protests, and have replicated the language used by civil society during the Ma Ying-jeou years to target the Tsai administration.
One segment of society that continues to use physical violence or the threat thereof involves the pro-unification groups that are opposed to the Tsai administration and to any iteration of self-determination, whether in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Those groups, which bring together organizations like the CPAROC, the and various members of Taiwan’s Triads — primarily the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang — are believed to be operating with some guidance from the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室標識) as well as United Front Work units of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPR, 中國和平統一促進會), though in many instances decisions are likely made independently. Those organizations were involved in at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in early January upon the arrival of four pro-localization and democracy activists from Hong Kong and took their protest outside the venue of a forum in Taipei, where they were met with a large police force. Chang Wei, the son of CUPP party founder Chang An-le (aka “White Wolf”) was after the attacks at Taoyuan airport.
As Beijing’s efforts to compel the Tsai administration to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” and “one China,” such groups, though marginal politically, are nevertheless expected to ramp up their activities and to target the more visible symbols of resistance to “one China” in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as to use bribery and intimidation in future elections. Members of criminal organizations, working in conjunction with the aforementioned groups, will also conceivably be activated as a means to isolate Taiwanese and Hong Kong so as to
There are also signs suggesting that pro-Beijing elements have infiltrated or cooperated with other civic groups involved in non-unification/independence matters, a development that could result in more violence at protests with the aim of causing social disturbance, undermining support for state authorities and discrediting democracy as a conflict-resolution mechanism. In light of the CCP’s and its claim that Marxism-Leninism offers a better alternative to democracy, Taiwan could be used as a battleground for that war of ideologies.
Signs of escalation and possible radicalization have also appeared in the protests surrounding the Tsai administration’s proposed reforms to the pension system. Though not uncontroversial, as this would affect civil servant’s ability to retain their preferential 18% saving rate — seen as unfair and unsustainable by a large segment of society — the reform has sparked protests across the nation in recent weeks. In some cases, protesters (or people passing off as protesters) individuals — including a young member of the New Power Party — who were heading for a public hearing on the reform. Such behavior would have been unthinkable in recent years, especially when civil society was fighting for the right of individuals to attend public hearings.
Civil society, with subsequent assistance by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong, also sought to discredit the administration by spreading claiming that the Presidential Office had given the green light to Military Police to open fire on protesters.
Violence has also occurred within the movement that opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Starting in 2013, groups opposed to legalization, many of them with ties to conservative Christian churches and , began harassing members of the LGBTQI community in public spaces, often denying them freedom of movement and invading their personal space; in some cases, the acts came very close to constituting imprisonment. More recently, opponents of legalization have physically assaulted, , slapped, spat upon and nearly strangled members of the LGBTQI community during public protests. More worryingly still is the fact that many of these incidents occurred in the presence of police officers, who failed to intervene and did not arrest the perpetrators. The instances of violence, or threat thereof, against members of the LGBTQI community have compelled proponents of same-sex marriage to deploy their own “security” at public events.
Street protests and activism are an essential component of a healthy democracy and a means to keep governments accountable to the public between elections. However, while such activism has been a key element of the consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy, recent developments suggest that the spirit of activism may in some instances have been hijacked by groups and individuals — not to mention the CCP — in order not to further Taiwan’s democracy but rather to undermine and discredit it in the eyes of the Taiwanese and their friends abroad. Greater effort will therefore be needed to distinguish between legitimate protests and those that may instead be used as instruments to achieve more nefarious objectives.
Since the Sunflower Movement in 2014, it has become evident that the international community has long been neglecting an important factor affecting cross-Strait relations and the regional strategic balance — the robust and dynamic democracy in Taiwan. The consolidation and persistence of democracy in Taiwan not only relies on the casting of votes in regular elections held every few years, but also takes root in the vibrant social movements and the competing advocacies of organizations from civil society. Pressed by a pluralized society, the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration has also endeavored to initiate various public policy reforms to address these social demands. New public debates are taking place every day, and contestation of social forces and ideologies emerges on multiple fronts in Taiwan’s public arena. Against such a background, the launch of the Taiwan Democracy Bulletin is an effort by TFD to meet the demands of the international community to grasp and comprehend the nuanced complexity and fast-changing dynamism in the democratic processes and practices in today’s Taiwan. We hope this bulletin will open a window for the world to take more interest in the fascinating stories that happen in Taiwan’s democracy. We also look forward to your feedback and suggestions in the future to improve our work and better meet the needs of our readers.
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Published twice monthly under the auspices of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), the Taiwan Democracy Bulletin offers timely and essential updates on trends and developments in Taiwan that are likely to affect the quality of its democratic institutions. Through short English-language articles written by experts in related fields, the Bulletin will provide a balanced assessment of the state of Taiwan’s democracy, clear-eyed analysis of the country’s vibrant civil society, and help connect state and non-state actors in Taiwan with partners in the international community who have a stake in the maintenance of Taiwan’s democracy. The Bulletin officially launches on Thursday February 23, 2017.
Find us at: bulletin.tfd.org.tw
Taiwan’s peaceful transition to democracy is not only a historical accomplishment for its twenty-three million people, but a landmark in the worldwide spread of democracy. Only after years of struggle and effort could this transformation take place. We must never forget this history, for it shapes the cornerstone of our continued commitment to the principles of democracy and human rights.
The Foundation was established with an inter-related, two-tracked mission in mind. Domestically, the TFD strives to play a positive role in consolidating Taiwan’s democracy and fortifying its commitment to human rights; internationally, the Foundation hopes to become a strong link in the world? democratic network, joining forces with related organizations around the world. Through the years, Taiwan has received valuable long-term assistance and stalwart support from the international community, and it is now time to repay that community for all of its efforts.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy project in 2002. After much research and careful evaluation, the Ministry integrated the required resources from many sectors of society. In January 2003, the Ministry obtained the support of all political parties to pass the budget for the Foundation in the legislature. The TFD formally came into being on June 17, 2003, with its first meeting of the Board of Trustees and Supervisory Board. At that meeting, Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng was elected its first chairman. According to its By-laws, the TFD is governed by a total of fifteen trustees and five supervisors, representing political parties, the government, academia, non-governmental organizations, and the business sector.
The primary source of funding for the TFD is the government. However, it is independently incorporated, non-partisan, and non-profit. According to its By-laws, the Foundation may accept international and domestic donations. One fifth of its budget is reserved for Taiwan’s political parties, supporting their own international and local initiatives that are in line with the mission of the TFD. The remaining budget is used for the TFD core activities, including：
Get the latest on democracy related events in Taiwan and overseas.